How rumors and conspiracy theories got in the way of Maui’s fire recovery

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After the wildfires in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui last month, unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories spread nearly as fast as the flames had. There was the one about the government – in some versions it was the U.S., in others a foreign government – using energy beam weapons to start the fire. Others blamed Oprah, the wealthy media mogul, and falsely claimed she was making a land grab. Still others claimed the fires were a cover up for military malfeasance.

Lahaina residents told NPR reporters on the ground that the rumors were spreading fear and confusion at a vulnerable time. On a visit to Danilo Andres’ home in the burn zone – miraculously standing after the fires – Andres says there was talk that the homes left standing might be further targeted: “There’s a satellite in the sky, they just pinpoint the house,” he said, explaining the theory. “The rumor’s in the hotel right now, so everybody’s moving out.”

Andres said he didn’t find the rumors credible, “… but I don’t know. What do you guys know?” he asked reporters.

In the absence of clear, reliable information, the rumors grew and cast suspicion on emergency response efforts. They fed into people’s fears that they wouldn’t be able to keep their land or their homes, if they remained, leading some to return to houses in the burn zone, days after the fire – despite warnings from authorities that the air and water may not be safe, and the structures may be compromised.

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